Who could have imagined that Black Mirror, a British science fiction series, would conclude its fourth season with an analogy that reckons with America’s sordid past? In the episode “Black Museum,” which employs the same format as Black Mirror’s “White Christmas” episode, the anthology within an anthology gives us brief tours into the horrors of technological advancements, culminating with one larger story arc—that of Clayton, a black man whose virtual conscience is ceaselessly tortured in a vile, sadistic museum attraction.
The man to blame for this repulsive amusement park is the museum’s proprietor, Rolo Haynes, who approaches Clayton Leigh while he is on death row for an alleged murder. Instead of looking into DNA evidence to clear Clayton’s name as he is asked to do, Rolo instead convinces Clayton to sign over the rights to his post-death consciousness. When Clayton’s pardon falls through due, in part, to negligence on Rolo’s end, Clayton is given the electric chair. However, his signed agreement allows Rolo to reincarnate Clayton as a fully conscious hologram, and unbeknownst to Clayton or his family, Rolo has insidious intentions—to imprison Clayton’s reborn self in a museum exhibit.
You see, Clayton 2.0 isn’t your typical hologram but instead a living, breathing electronic copy of Clayton that is conscious and can feel pain. Rolo uses this as a vehicle for profit, allowing museum visitors to electrically shock Clayton as a form of amusement, while Clayton bears the full and very real agony of electrocution. This morbid attraction, bundled with its equally morbid souvenir, a key chain that replays Clayton’s tortured shrieks, is described by the museum’s curator as a “conscious sentient snapshot of Clayton ... perpetually experiencing that beautiful pain. Stuck forever in that one perfect moment of agony. Always on. Always suffering.”
This quote and depiction, in many ways, illustrates America’s historical obsession with black pain and its commodification for profit.
Slavery is the glaring beginning of this horrific legacy as it forcibly turned black people into things that could be purchased, exploited for labor, brutalized and raped. Yet history does not stop there. Human zoos, which put black and brown bodies on display for zoo patrons to laugh and jeer at, were prominent throughout the 1800s.
Later, lynching postcards were extremely popular items in the United States. These postcards displayed the gruesome murders of thousands of black people who were lynched over the course of a century and were bought, sold and sent as greetings between white families and friends.
In minstrelsy, white men donned blackface to spout false and harmful portrayals of black men and women.
All of these atrocities were businesses that turned black pain into capitalistic gain. But what happens when the commodity is a byproduct of pain? That is, to obtain the end product, pain must be inflicted. For the museum visitors to obtain their key chain trinket of Clayton, they must electrocute him. Similarly, goods such as the aforementioned lynching postcards and human zoos existed because they were able to collect a “conscious sentient snapshot” of black pain. Always on. Always suffering.
Today these “snapshots” take the form of enterprises like the rap industry, in which artists recount trauma, suicidal thoughts and drug addiction while listeners sing along, or museums where people line up to pay to get a glimpse at the bloody slab of concrete where Martin Luther King Jr. took his last breath, or hashtag T-shirt companies whose sales literally depend on continued fatal encounters between black individuals and police officers. As James Allen expressed, “In America, everything is for sale, even national shame.”
Chance the Rapper often speaks of the summer being a time of death in his community, because many are murdered during the hot months in Chicago. Lil Uzi Vert’s “XO Tour Llif3,” Kendrick Lamar’s “u,” Geto Boy’s “Mind Playing Tricks on Me,” Notorious B.I.G.’s “Suicidal Thoughts,” Nas’ “Drunk by Myself,” 2Pac’s “Thug Mansion” and Vic Mensa’s “There’s a Lot Going On” all detail their deadly depression, thoughts of death by suicide and even suicide attempts. Hip-hop’s lyricized accounts of poverty, addiction, violence and mental illness are purchased—only to be blared through the speakers of middle-class white teenagers’ cars.
Black narratives aren’t immune to hijacking, either. In film and television, our stories are told by white directors and producers for their glory and benefit—as exemplified by the whiteness of the Oscars, Golden Globes and Emmys.
The media, in its “heroic” endeavors to report, builds its news reels, entertainment pieces and empire on the constant broadcasting of black pain for clicks and views.
Hell, our movements aren’t even safe. Depictions of activism are used for commercials to sell Pepsi, a company whose CEO served on Donald Trump’s Business Council, and social-action movements are co-opted by companies like Google and Microsoft, who made large contributions to Trump’s campaign. These gestures are performative and utilized to maintain sales, influence and power.
This continued packaging and sale of black struggle is dangerous for it numbs the consumer to black pain, since they are not affected by it but are merely enjoyers of its fruits.
This numbing bolsters the normalization of black suffering, which, in turn, perpetuates a fallacy that black individuals have an inherent high pain tolerance—and therefore are a) undeserving of empathy and b) immune to the atrocities inflicted upon them.
This is the same ridiculous notion that leads white physicians to withhold pain medication from black individuals under the falsehood that black people experience less pain than white people.
In other cases, it can create the artifice that black people are superhuman, which is evident in Hillary Clinton’s “superpredator” comment as well as police officers’ perceived need to use extreme force against unarmed black men out of a supposed fear for their lives. Then-Police Officer Darren Wilson displayed this type of thinking in his recount of the death of Mike Brown, whom he described as seemingly impervious to bullets.
A worse scenario of the normalization of black pain manifests the normalization of black death, which is why videos of vicious killings like those of Sam Dubose and Philando Castile can go viral, being liked, shared and streamed millions of times.
In the cycle of the commodification of black pain, we become desensitized to black suffering in every form, even death.
“Black Museum” highlights some very important things about this disgusting cycle: the participants.
In “Black Museum,” like in the real world, it is easy to blame the person who created the museum, but he or she is only half of the equation. It was Rolo who imprisoned Clayton, but it was the museum visitors who electrocuted him. It was the seemingly normal white tourists, families and children who pulled that lever, sending electric volts into Clayton’s body.
Just like it was the seemingly normal white families and children who turned lynchings into entertainment events, visited human zoos to gawk at Africans, and went to see minstrel shows.
It is easy to blame neo-Nazis, white supremacists and Trump for this roller coaster of an administration they’ve built, but if many white folks, even the most benevolent, well-meaning white liberals, look in the mirror, they’ll find that it is they who are holding the money to pay to get on the ride. And just like in the conclusion of Black Mirror: “Black Museum,” they’ll find that when one gets too comfortable participating in the act of black torture—it rarely ends well.